There are several types of washing machines available, and whether the laundry is loaded from the top or the front determines the washing method used by the machine.
Types of Washers
A traditional top-load washer fills the tub with water, then the center agitator in the middle of the drum spins to swirl the laundry. These are typically the least expensive type of washer ($250-$1,000+), but use the most water and energy. A high-efficiency top-load washer does not have a center agitator. Instead, the tub fills only partly with water and the machine uses ridges along the bottom and sides of the tub and a variety of motions to slowly tumble the laundry. A high-efficiency top-loader typically spins at higher speeds than a traditional top-loader (as much as 1,000 to 1,200 rpm compared to about 650 rpm). While these washers use much less energy and water, they usually cost more (typically $600-$1,800+).
A front-load washer only fills partly with water, and cleans clothes by lifting them to the top of the tub and then dropping them back into the water. This uses a lot less water and energy than a traditional washer, but requires low-foaming, high-efficiency liquid detergent to clean well, and wash cycles can last longer than on a conventional center-agitator machine (typically 50-100 minutes compared to 35-60 minutes). Typically costing $600-$2,000+, front-loaders are maintained slightly differently than traditional top-loaders; the rubber door seal should be wiped down after use, the door should be left open when not in use so the interior dries out, and many front-load washers have a self-clean setting that should be run monthly.
Measure the space available in the laundry area, and locate the hook-ups for water, electric and gas. Most washers and dryers are 27" wide, although compact/portable models may be 24" wide. Height and depth varies, and modern machines may be taller and deeper than older models, requiring slightly more space.
If the laundry area is located on the second floor of the home, near the bedrooms, it's important to look for machines with added insulation and improved suspension, to minimize the noise and vibration levels. High-efficiency washers with spin speeds of 1,000-1,200 rpm or more may not be appropriate for an upstairs laundry.
Washer capacity is measured in cubic feet. For most users, a typical load requires less than 3 cubic feet of capacity, according to ConsumerSearch.com. Front-loading machines typically have a capacity of 3 cu. ft. to 4.2 cu. ft., while full-size top-loading washers have a typical capacity of 3 cu. ft. to 3.8 cu. ft., according to Cnet.
Stackable machines save horizontal space by installing the dryer on top of the matching washer, instead of side-by-side. A stacking kit ($20-$30) is required, and the washer and dryer must be matching models that are designed to be stackable. (It generally isn't possible to stack mis-matched machines.) Some stacking kits offset the washer and dryer slightly, so the stacked units require more depth than the individual machines do if installed side-by-side. For example, a washer and dryer might each be 32" deep, but when stacked they require 36"deep.
A steam cycle can refresh clothing by removing odors and wrinkles without water and detergent -- similar to what a dry cleaner does. Steam can also help remove stains better than with water-washing alone, and can sanitize fabrics, especially on hard-to-wash items like pillows or stuffed toys. All this comes at price, typically $300-$800 more than a similar model without steam. It can be worth it for households that frequently launder heavily-soiled items, but some users feel it's possible to get items just as clean in a good washer without steam.
Standard washers typically have about four cycles -- heavy duty, normal, delicate and permanent press, although some basic machines might not have a delicate setting. High-end washers can have 12-20 cycles or more, with choices like prewash, rinse and spin, stain removal, steam, towels, bedding, baby care, bulky/large, cotton/normal, express wash, hand-wash/wool. A multitude of extra cycles can be confusing, and many consumers find they routinely use just a few settings. Make a list of the type of articles routinely washed, from delicates to piles of muddy jeans, to decide which wash cycles will be the most useful.
The faster the washer spins the clothes, the less time they'll need to be in the dryer, saving both time and energy. Standard top-loading machines typically spin up to 630-650 rpm, while front-loading or high efficiency machines have a maximum spin speed of 1,000 to 1,200 rpm, and a few spin as fast as 2,000 rpm. However, an extra-fast spin speed may cause the washer to vibrate more, so it can be a trade-off if the laundry is located upstairs on wooden floors (instead of a cement basement or garage floor), or near living or sleeping areas.
All new washers must have a yellow EnergyGuide label in the store, showing how efficiently the machine uses energy and the total amount of water in each load divided by the washer's capacity. Energy Star rated washers use 14 gallons of water per load, compared to 27 gallons in a standard machine. Read the yellow labels to compare energy usage on different models, or check online at EnergyStar.gov.
Standard washers typically have three basic settings for the wash and rinse cycles -- hot-cold for whites, warm-cold for lights and cold-cold for dark colors. More advanced models offer a wider range of temperature combinations, like extra hot-cold, hot-cold, warm-warm, warm-cold or cold-cold. It's important to decide how frequently the extra temperatures might be needed -- some experts feel the standard settings are enough for an average family.
Sensor systems evaluate the size and weight of the load and set the water levels automatically, saving water on smaller loads. Many consumers like this feature, while others are bothered by the time it takes for the machine to evaluate the load (the clothes may tumble for a few seconds then stop, then do it again repeating the process several times, all before the wash cycle actually begins).
Bending over to load clothes into a front-load washer can be hard on the back. An optional pedestal (typically $100-$300) raises the washer about 14"-15", and provides a storage drawer under the washer.
Basic washing machines typically use a rotary dial to select the cycles, while high-end machines often have digital displays; favorite settings can be programmed in, and activated with the push of a button.
Wash tubs are typically porcelain-coated (least expensive and can deteriorate if the porcelain chips), plastic (long lasting) or stainless steel (the best material). Many machines have a painted steel cabinet, but a porcelain top is more durable and scratch-resistant.